Facial Recognition and a Life of Crime

As we are increasingly being surveilled by our governments through the use of both CCTV and the use of facial recognition technology, a recent announcement from Harrisburg University seems particularly pertinent.

Here is the announcement (which was scrubbed from the Harrisburg University website) thanks to the Wayback Machine:

While the braintrust at Harrisburg University may think that they got rid of the evidence, in fact, they seem to have forgotten that the internet never forgets anything.  On the upside, the software has "no racial bias", a very reassuring thought. 

Even the local ABC27 News got in on the action:

Thanks to the rather negative response received from the denizens of the internet, HU took down the original announcement (as posted above) and replaced it with this:

Now, let's look at the subject matter of the announcement.  Apparently, researchers at HU have developed automated software that is capable of predicting whether someone will become a criminal with 80 percent accuracy.  According to the announcement, the software is intended to help law enforcement prevent crime.

This brings to mind two things:

1.) The combined studies of phrenology and physiognomy – In the late 19th century, criminologists debated whether whether criminals had certain facial features that separated them from non-criminals which is outlined in Cesare Lombroso's 1876 book Criminal Man as quoted here:

"At the sight of that skull (the skull of a man convicted of theft and arson), I seems to see all of a sudden…the problem of the nature of the criminal – an atavistic being who reproduces in his person the ferocious instincts of primitive humanity and the inferior animals.  Thus were explained anatomically the enormous jaws, high cheek bones, prominent superciliary arches, solitary lies in the palms. extreme size of the orbits, handle-shaped or sensile ears found in criminals, savages and apes…"

Lombroso believed that "oblique eyes and the projection of the lower face and jaws were features related to criminality:

In general, thieves are notable for their expressive faces and manual dexterity, small wandering eyes that are often oblique in form, thick and close eyebrows, distorted or squashed noses, thin beards and hair, and sloping foreheads.  Like rapists, they often have jug ears. Rapists, however, nearly always have sparkling eyes, delicate features, and swollen lips and eyelids. Most of them are frail; some are hunchbacked."

Much of Lombroso's work has long been discredited although his use of scientific methods to study crime is still used today.

In addition, here is an example of physiognomy showing the relationship between facial features and character:

2.) The 2002 movie Minority Report – In this landmark movie from Steven Spielberg "precogs" are able to see into the future and predict murders before they happen (precrime), allowing the government to lock up people before they commit crimes:

Given the moves toward new levels of surveillance in the post-COVID-19 era, the software being developed by researchers at Harrisburg University is particularly concerning since we will all be watched and our movements judged by the increasingly powerful police state. 

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